Press-freedom groups from Paris and Berlin to New York have voiced dismay at Sweden’s proposal to weaken a landmark EU law against corporate and political bullies.
EU values commissioner Věra Jourová and EU Parliament president Roberta Metsola have made big promises on protecting European journalists from malicious litigation.
Their new bill is to give judges new powers to throw out “manifestly unfounded” cases which amounted to “strategic lawsuits against public participation [SLAPPs]”, among other measures.
They informally call it ‘Daphne’s Law’ after the late Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was killed by a car bomb in 2017, in a sign of its importance.
And EU diplomats will discuss it on 15 March in behind-closed-door talks, as it goes through the EU’s legal plumbing, with a view to entering into life by 2026.
But for its part, the Swedish EU presidency has already cut key elements in the hope of getting the 27 member states on board, prompting the press-freedom outcry.
Sweden has removed special provisions on cross-border cases and watered down language on early dismissal of cases, according to its “compromise proposal”, seen by EUobserver and shared with advocacy groups.
“‘Daphne’s Law’ must cover cross-border cases and include effective anti-SLAPP protection measures, including stay of proceedings and early dismissal of SLAPPs, compensation for defendants’ damages, and penalties for SLAPP claimants,” the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation in Valetta told EUobserver.
“Removing or weakening these measures and eliminating the clauses on cross-border cases defeats the directive’s purpose,” it added.
The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said: “In order to combat abusive lawsuit in European countries, it is essential that the directive applies to as many cases as possible. To this end, the concept of cases with a cross-border impact proposed by the [EU] Commission is key”.
“It makes it possible to … encompass, for example, the case of pollution of a river that crosses several European countries,” the group’s Julie Majerczak said.
The Swedish changes mean “powerful individuals and corporations will still be able to sue journalists in multiple jurisdictions, putting them in an impossible situation to defend their work,” Flutura Kusari, from the Berlin-based European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) also said.
Tom Gibson, from the New-York based Committee to Protect Journalists, added: “The rise of SLAPPs in Europe has drawn attention to just how much pressure is being applied by the rich and powerful on critical voices”.
“This compromised text means that the EU member states want to dumb down, not strengthen, the law,” he said.
The problem is so acute in Malta that “literally before we were able to bury what was left of my dead mother [in 2017], we were back in court fighting one of the 40 or more lawsuits against her,” Daphne Caruana Galizia’s son, Matthew Caruana Galizia, told an anti-SLAPP conference in Strasbourg last October.
“Today, the former prime minister of Malta, Joseph Muscat, is still suing my dead mother. It’s a surreal situation. It shocks me every time I say it,” he said at the time.
Big newspapers such as Gazeta Wyborcza in Poland as well as student publishers in Germany and environmental activists in France have been among recent victims of vexatious lawsuits.
Legal papers arrived by the crate-load in Warsaw on some days, amid more than 100 lawsuits by the ruling Law and Justice party in Poland over the past few years, Gazeta Wyborcza’s deputy editor Piotr Stasiński said in Strasbourg.
The drain on time, mental health, and money, with some costing tens of thousands of euros, risked making editors “pessimistic” or having a “chilling effect” on coverage, Stasiński said.
EUobserver in Brussels has also fought three SLAPP-type cases, some involving cross-border elements from Luxembourg and Belarus, in the past three years.
It did so with financial support from the ECPMF, which also welcomes new applications for help.
Jourová’s spokesman did not reply to questions on Tuesday (7 March).
The Swedish EU presidency did not comment on the record on the leaked compromise proposal.